Sticky tape

The fact that our family is small is something we’ve been talking about a bit this week. Tom has to make a family tree at school. Even though the teacher explained in her request for photos that all shapes and sizes of tree will be celebrated, I knew Tom’s was going to look particularly tiny and lopsided. So, we had the chat about how lots of people love him and it’s a shame the cat isn’t allowed on the tree and then he gave me a massive squeeze and told me I am the best thing in the entire history and it all felt OK.

Fast forward to this evening: My sister was coming to meet Tom after his swimming lesson and we were hurriedly wrapping her birthday presents and writing her cards in the foyer of the pool.

Being organised (I thought), I’d bought one of those paper gift bags, so that I could just wrap the presents in tissue paper and shove them inside, without any need to worry about things like scissors or Sellotape.

“What are you doing?” asked a little girl from Tom’s class, peering over the table.

“Wrapping my auntie’s birthday presents,” said Tom.

“You need Sellotape,” she said, as I wrapped a sheet of tissue around an umbrella and twisted it at the ends (like people do to make presents look like crackers at Christmas, even though it isn’t Christmas.)

“We haven’t got any Sellotape,” I said, plonking the brolly into the bag and moving on to the chocolate.

“When my mummy wraps presents, she always uses Sellotape,” said the little girl.

“My family,”  said Tom, stopping to add in a word, “my little family –  is a bit disorganised sometimes, but we make a great team.”

True, that.

This is a divi tree from the Caribbean. They never grow very big and lean one way because of the trade winds. Photo: Aruba Divi Tree – Eagle Beach by Serge Melki on Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

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Little Coat – Big Coat

What are you doing this weekend? If you’re in Manchester tomorrow (Saturday), pop into the Arndale and do some good.

One of my favourite things about winter is zipping my son into his warm winter coat (actually, he tends to do that himself these days, but you know what I mean…) There’s a certain glow from knowing that your child is warm and cosy – and if you’re anything like me, you’re probably guilty of taking that for granted.

Manchester isn’t known for its tropical climate, so a decent winter coat is a necessity for anyone living here. Unfortunately, it’s not a given for many children in the city. Last week, the M.E.N. reported that 42 per cent of children in Manchester are living in poverty – that’s twice the national average. The way the Government is going, the situation isn’t going to improve any time soon.

The Wood Street Mission has been helping local families for over 140 years. Last year, they helped 9,300 children living in poverty. Project Little Coat / Big Coat aims to collect coats in perfect condition for children whose parents or carers can’t afford to buy them new ones. It’s a simple idea: just take a pre-loved coat to fit a child or young adult to Halle Square in the Arndale tomorrow. As well as the knowledge that your child’s old coat is going to someone who really deserves it, you’ll get a voucher entitling you to 20% off a new coat at selected Arndale shops. So, if you’ve got any too-tiny coats kicking around under the stairs, you know what to do. Find out more about the Little Coat – Big Coat appeal here.

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Simple Things

Sunday morning and Tom and I are sitting in the swathes of clothes that litter the inside of our tent. It’s lashing it down outside, the walls are quivering and drops of condensation are being rattled on to our ‘bed’.

Last night was Primal Scream and thanks to the help of a team of friends strong enough to shoulder Tom, he got a perfect view of Bobby and almost as much attention. It’s the last day of the magnificent Festival Number 6 in magical Portmeirion, there are a hundred amazing things to see and do and I don’t think we can move for a bit. I could do with the Portaloo, but I just stuck my head out of the tent and got smacked by sideways sheets. We do need to leave the tent at some point, but I’m worried it will fly off into the estuary. We’ll just sit tight, until things calm down a bit, then go out and see what’s happening. I flick through the programme, spoilt for choice by the tantalising music, talks and parties in spectacular places. Tom is eating a piece of squashed bread, wrapped around a rubbery cheese slice the colour of Barbie. Balancing precariously on his long-johnned lap is a tin of cold baked beans.

“Ah,” he sighs, dipping the bread into the beans and catching the drips on the lid, “This is the life.”

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No Pets, No DSS, No Single Parents

“Mum, it’s beautiful!” Tom said, as we approached our new house.

And it was.

Finally: south of the city, within budget and best of all, a garden. One of my pet hates is when letting agents market two-up-two-downs in Chorlton as cottages (£850 a month, anyone?) but this did actually feel like a cottage. And it wasn’t in Chorlton, but I’d probably end up getting eco ennui if I lived there anyway.

“I want it,” I said, as we stepped through the door into a room full of sunlight.

Ten minutes later, the fees were in the agency’s bank account, the lady at the office was congratulating me and Tom was choosing his bedroom. Never mind the people who arrived to look at it as we were leaving: it was ours.

Except it wasn’t.

Three days later, I received a call from the agency:

“The landlady has decided she doesn’t want children in there.”

“I’ve only got one child.”

“I know, we’ve tried but she just says no children.”

“He’s nearly seven. What does she think he’s going to do – draw on the walls?”

“Sorry. You haven’t handed in your notice on your current house, have you?”

“No,” I’d been too busy, thank goodness, “Why is this happening?”

“Sorry. She just wants two working professionals.”

We’d already been through this: I contacted the agency initially to ask if I could have a cat in there – and they were more interested in what humans would be moving in. After I told them it would just be me and my son, they said that sorry, the landlady would only accept two working professionals. I pleaded with the agent, offering a guarantor, references and pay slips and suddenly, they were ‘pleased to tell me’ the landlady would let us look around.

Lucky us.

When the news had sunk in, I called the agency back to sort out the refund of the fees. This time, I got a man:

“I just don’t understand why she let us look around then changed her mind.”

“Yeah it’s not discrimination or anything like that,” he said, before I’d even mentioned the word, “All it is is that she’s got some concerns about the safety of the property and outside the property that make it unsuitable for a child.”

“But she knew I had a child. What concerns?”

“Obviously, these are just some concerns she has.”

“What sort of concerns?” Holes in the roof? Local doggers? A poltergeist?

“Obviously,” (no, it’s not obvious) “these are just some concerns she has. It’s for her own conscience, really.”

I checked the website when I got home and the house had gone. Someone had got it, just not us.

Luckily, Tom’s easy-going. “She sounds nasty, Mum. It’s a good job we didn’t move into her house anyway.”

I suspect the landlady hadn’t decided that she didn’t want a child in her property; she had decided that she didn’t want a single mother in her property.

I’d forgotten all this: when Tom was a toddler, I thought I’d be stuck in Mum’s house forever. Following one viewing, I called a landlady to tell her I was interested and she said “Right. Well, you don’t choose us, we choose you. So we’ll let you know if you’ve been successful.” (She never called back.)

On another occasion, a landlord of a ‘student flat suitable for families’, advertised through the university laughed at me: “How can you be studying if you have a baby? Sorry, this flat is not for you.”

This is not the 1950s: single parents are not excluded like they used to be, but the discrimination is still there, subtle. Single parents cannot just find their perfect home, pay the deposit and move in – mysterious force fields seem to see to that. For those who claim Housing Benefit, things are even harder. Moving house wasn’t something we desperately needed to do, but for many it is. You’re not as susceptible to the prejudice when you’re lucky enough to have an education and a job – but neither are you completely immune.

If you’re my landlord and you’re reading this (unlikely, but you have just offered to have the whole house professionally painted) we’re not going anywhere. Turns out getting Tom into a new school would have been incredibly difficult – and he’s happy where he is. And we’re very lucky to have a landlord who trusts us, never comes round, sends a repair man the second anything goes wrong and lets us have a cat. Thanks. I’ll keep making this our home and paying my rent on time, every month, just like I have been doing for the past five years.

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Reviewed: Beacons Festival

Giving out the name of your blog when it’s called ‘My Shitty Twenties’ is always fun, especially in front of little ears. Still, all those Ts sound good through the ventriloquist-tight teeth of one reluctant to say something out loud. It’s a scenario I found myself in at Beacons Festival last weekend, much to the amusement of box office staff.

“It’s a Tumblr about Portaloos,” I said.

As it turns out, a lot of the overheard conversations at the festival were about toilets, or lack of them. I could write a blog post about it, but I won’t, because we didn’t let it ruin what was a wonderful weekend.

There were four of us in our party: my friend Claire, her broken finger, me and Tom. Count the bags-on-wheels and we made a pretty sorry caravan. When we arrived, after two trains, a minor bus crash and a taxi, a kindly dad helped us shift our camping gear.

“We’ve been here since Thursday,” he said, “The kids love it; it’s like a mini holiday.”

I was a bit envious then that we hadn’t been able to make it down until Saturday – Funkirk Estate was gorgeous, surrounded on all sides by hills, easily accessible from the local town, small and simple to navigate.

Making ace shadow puppets

The family camp site was full, but I half-expected that given our late arrival and the ‘first come, first served’ warning on the website. We pitched up elsewhere, but still had access to the family facilities. Whilst the Breakfast Club didn’t have the hotly-anticipated cartoons, it did deliver story-telling and workshops in a space that was warm, comfy and dry. Those three words are bliss when it’s a boggy one: Saturday afternoon was glorious (clear, paraglider-peppered sky that turned pink at dusk,) but Sunday was barely light, very wet and squelchy underfoot.

Stand-off between fox and sea monster

The brilliant Ladybird team worked tirelessly to provide muddied children with all manner of entertainment. Elsewhere, the Into The Woods tent was a colourful but calm space and home to one of my festival highlights: a screening of We Are Poets, a mesmerising documentary about some of Leeds Young Authors‘ journeys to compete in USA poetry slams. As the film ended and Claire and I sniffled a bit, some of the stars took to the stage for a surprise live performance and Q and A. (Tom’s questions: “How far away was it when you went to America?” and “What are your favourite bands?”)

Speaking of bands, we’re up to Sunday, shin-deep in mud and I haven’t mentioned music. The line up for Beacons was ace, but there’s no point in trying to see someone in particular when you’ve got a child in tow. On Saturday afternoon, Tom flung himself about to a bit of Bok Bok, which delighted his fellow ravers. Later on, Ghostpoet provided rhymes and goosebumps – and I got to see a whole ten minutes of Andrew Weatherall’s set before Tom’s batteries ran out. But the big one, the reason why Tom was so excited, was the Sunday night headliner…

Toots and the Maytals are best heard in the sunshine, so I wasn’t sure how it would go in a dark marquee. We took Tom back to our tent for a pre-gig siesta and when we emerged, the site was draped in thick mist. It all added to the finale atmosphere, but what Beacons was lacking was an outdoor stage. Big tops might keep rain off, but venturing in with a little one is daunting, especially when the ground’s a quagmire. Dads tried to heroically hoist their kids up on to their shoulders but struggled to balance in the sludge. Tom was gutted when he realised he couldn’t see Toots, but we hung back and the power nap paid off: he danced his way all through the dazzling set, which included Funky Kingston, Monkey Man and the ubiquitous 54-46 encore (Toots’ voice is so good.) At the end, a friend who didn’t have a broken finger found us and we managed to raise Tom above the crowd. He must have glimpsed the band for 30 seconds, but he was made up.

“That was amazing! I can’t believe it,” he huffed, red-faced, all the way back to the tent.

The Beacons bill obviously attracted grown-up music fans, but the provision for families was excellent. Yes, there were issues with toilets, but who goes to a festival expecting pristine loos? This was the first year for Beacons and it was clear that a lot of hard work and dedication had gone into making it happen. Yes, they should have ordered more Portaloos, but after all the fuss, they’ll be making sure they get that right next year.

I’d love there to be an outdoor stage, but the music, site, décor, children’s stuff and atmosphere were all spot on. Next time, we’ll try to arrive on Thursday and have that mini holiday.

Over to Tom:

“I loved Beacons because it was a festival I could really boogie at.”

There you go.

This is a review post: our tickets to the festival were free.

“Really boogieing” to Toots and the Maytals

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Everybody needs good ones

Four years ago, on a Friday afternoon, I heard a cork pop and raucous laughter coming through the wall from next door. I had a new neighbour. Louise is my age, kind, funny and lovely. She quickly became Tom’s Auntie; she baked with him, she decorated his bedroom, she took him places in her car – all things I couldn’t do. Louise watched Tom grow from a two year old in a buggy to a six year old who couldn’t wait to show her his wobbly teeth and school reports.

Louise was my saviour, too; driving me out to the countryside for long walks and chats, lending me her step ladders (and steadying them) when I needed to change a light bulb, helping me shift furniture from one end of the room to the other (and back again.) Sometimes, if I had a stack of washing up to do or clothes to put away, she would come and sit and chat to me while I just got on with it. We had nights out, we had nights in, we went on holiday together. I listened to her, she listened to me, one day I want to return all the favours she did for me. When I lost all my confidence in my writing and myself, she talked me out of it and encouraged me to keep going. Whilst most of my friends live far across the other side of town, Louise was only ever a couple of slipper-clad footsteps away.

I often accidentally referred to Louise  as my housemate, because that’s how it felt. I would hear her coming in from nights out when I was up writing late. That distinctive laugh through the walls became my reassurance that Tom and I had company, that we were never truly alone in our little corner of the city.

Last week, I was walking across a sun-drenched field in Oxfordshire when I heard that ever-so-slightly-dirty laugh come from inside a nearby tent. I’d won tickets to Wilderness festival (posh, sunny, wonderful) and one of the reasons why I’d entered the competition was because Louise and I had talked about going.

“Is that you, Louise?” I said, panicking for a second that it might be someone else.

Of course it was though, that laugh. I was four hours away from home, in the middle of a thousand tents and it had still managed to reach me.

Louise got a new job a few weeks ago, so she doesn’t live next door any more. I am really pleased for her, but God, we miss her. I keep half-going to call her and ask her what she’s up to, then remembering she’s not there. Tom keeps asking after her as well.

When I got back from Wilderness and the weather was reasonable, all I wanted was one of our ritual summer walks. The raspberries are out now and we would have let Tom pick them while we talked about the weekend.

Sometimes, people ask if it’s hard on your own. It doesn’t feel like it is most of the time, especially if it’s all you’ve ever known. But it’s definitely easier when you’ve got good people to support you. And unless you’ve got a housemate, people don’t get much closer than your next door neighbour. I often joke that Louise didn’t know what she was letting herself in for moving in next to us, but she always smiles and says she thinks it was meant to be.

Thankfully, Louise keeps coming back to visit. It’s not quite the same as it was when she was just through the wall (we often said we’d make a hatch so we could just climb through into each other’s houses) but I know she’ll always be around. When your family’s tiny, lovely people really make a difference. The last four years were definitely happier for Louise being there. Tom and I got so lucky with Louise – and that blummin’ laugh.

(Time to stop sniffling and readjust.)

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Sweatshirts and Set Squares

It’s getting dark earlier, confused trees are beginning to shed their leaves and the high street is awash with comic sans signs that look like they’ve been written in wax crayon. All this means one thing: Back to School.

Those three words don’t trigger half the amount of doom in children as they do in parents. (Even more so when the phrase ‘Back 2 Skool’ is used – but that’s another post.) No one wants to think about autumn in August. The bombardment of special offers, sweatshirts and set squares makes me want to skive the big school shop – and that’s precisely what I used to do. But after three years of struggling to find what I need and ending up paying over the odds at the eleventh hour, I have realised it pays to be organised.

I got an email from Most Wanted, the magazine of vouchercodes.co.uk, telling me that the average cost of sending a pupil back to school is £121. That seems absolutely ridiculous, especially in the current climate. No wonder so many families can’t afford to kit their children out in the correct uniform. The thing is, I don’t think it should cost anywhere near that if you plan ahead. Most Wanted challenged me to get Tom classroom-ready for £80. A doddle, I thought – and there’ll be change…

Trousers: M&S are as good at school staples as they are at superfood salads and their Outstanding Value Trousers have always served us well. There are a host of supermarkets out there selling trousers without frills which I am sure are just as good, but Tom’s a bit of whippet and the elasticated ones just don’t stay up. These have an adjustable waist, are water and stain resistant and best of all, they never need to go near an iron. These are not just any grey school kecks… Pack of two pairs: £9

Polo Shirts: A white polo shirt is a white polo shirt: after a few months of baked bean juice, paints and playground muck, it takes on a new life as a duster. In the meantime, you don’t want to have spent too much on it. That’s why I am trying Aldi’s this time, at £1.25 for a pack of two. If they’re as good as their Disco Biscuits, they’ll be just fine. Two packs of two: £2.50

Sweatshirts: These can only be bought directly from the school. I haven’t bought any for two years, because I bought Tom a good size up when he started in 2o10. If I can get through the scrum at the receptionist’s hatch on the first day back, they’ll be £8 each (I think.) Ideally, we could do with three as they often get grubby, but I’ll stick to two for now: Two sweatshirts: £16.

Shoes: These are the biggest drain on the school uniform budget. If your child has particularly wide or narrow feet, you can’t afford to scrimp on them. Thankfully, after the breakneck speed at which toddlers’ feet grow, things seem to calm down a bit once children hit school age. I’ve been really lucky with Tom’s last three pairs of school shoes, by Ricosta and Clarks, all of which have lasted a whole year of school sprints and playground scuffs. Unlike girls’ shoes, which seem to come decked in butterflies, petals and fairy lights, boys’ footwear is pretty straightforward, meaning as long as you get the right size, they should be happy. Clarks are now letting you book fitting appointments online, which means no horrible queues and more chance of getting a pair in your child’s size. Getting measured by the pros is an event in itself (although it’s all digital now – I miss those machines that close in on your feet.) One pair, £36

That’s it for us. I’ll probably use the change for a haircut that’s not done by me with the kitchen scissors – and maybe that backup jumper. It can be tempting to buy new underwear, socks and coats to mark the start of a new school year, but if your child doesn’t need them, don’t do it. Tom’s coat and PE kit from last year still fit, he doesn’t need stationery and he has the standard issue book bag from the school.

Total: £63.50

Change: £16.50

Ways to save:

Snip name tags off old garments instead of buying new ones (or just use a Sharpie in the first place.)

Buy cheap PE pumps instead of fancy trainers.

Always go for the biggest size you can get away with. If your boy shoots up overnight and ends up with half-mast trousers, snip the ends off and make them into shorts.

Deal in coats on eBay: Quality, warm coats are expensive brand new, but you can usually pick up something markedly cheaper and hardly worn in an auction. Sell your child’s old school coat on there too – you should get a decent price if it’s in good nick.

If you’re really struggling with the cost of school uniform, speak to the school – most have boxes of used items that can be bought for pence. If you are throwing your old stuff out, spare a thought for those who can’t afford new uniform and hand it to the school.

If you’re on low income or benefits and you live in England, you may be entitled to help with the cost of school uniform. Find out more here.

Vouchercodes.co.uk gave us £80 to spend on school uniform.

What my head looks like when it thinks about buying school uniform.

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